We live at a unique moment in history, an unprecedented civilizational crisis. Our species 200,000 year history began with an epic journey from the plains of Africa, where we evolved, across all the lands and seas and islands of our world. Our development featured the ever increasing use of technology to ever more greatly exploit the energy and material resources of our environment. Beginning about 10,000 years ago humanity separated itself decisively from its surrounding ecosystem with the invention of agriculture, and concomitantly, civilization. As the succeeding centuries and millennia passed, human cultures increasingly became disconnected from our surrounding natural world.
By the period we call the Bronze Age the pattern for all major civilizations was established. Human domination and exploitation of Nature, male domination of females, and ultimate domination of all by a tiny elite. With few exceptions, this pattern has continued fundamentally unchanged across our recorded history. The Industrial Revolution beginning perhaps 200 to 150 years ago vastly amplified our apparent power over Nature. As vast concentrated sources of hydrocarbon energy became available for exploitation, work that could be performed to create value--wealth--increased by orders of magnitude. In time, in those lands that pioneered this revolution, increasing wealth led to increasing demands for a more equitable division of wealth. This led to political democracy, and a government administered social welfare network in those pioneering nations. Optimism that these trends would continue forever prevailed by the time of my childhood. By 1965, universal affluence, global democracy, even space colonies, appeared to be our nearly inevitable future. Only a nuclear war with Soviet Russia could derail this future it seemed.
How very much everything has changed in 50 years! Hydrocarbon energy has proven to be more curse than blessing. Already, as a consequence global mean temperatures have risen 1.06 C (1.9 F) since 1880, and are rising at an accelerating rate. (1) The planet's oceans are rapidly acidifying. (2) Trillions of tons of Arctic methane, a greenhouse gas approximately 100 times more potent than CO2 are in danger of being rapidly released due to rapidly warming temperatures for the Arctic Ocean and surrounding permafrost areas. (3)
As the planet heats up, its weather, which represents the differential heating of the planet's atmosphere, land, and waters, seeking via the laws of thermodynamics, to come to an equilibrium, becomes increasingly disrupted from its long term stability. Extreme weather events proliferate. Agriculture is based on a belief that we know the long term weather for an area. As this weather rapidly becomes unstable or shifts entirely, this belief is falsified. Crops fail.
Still worse, there is a broad based belief that the transition from fossil fuels can be powered by fossil fuels. Leaving aside the problem of contributing to the problem of global warming by continuing to burn these fuels, there is a largely unknown problem with this assumption. As analyst Gail Tverberg notes: "
"1. We are hitting something similar to "Peak Oil" right now. The symptoms are the opposite of the ones that most people expected. There is a glut of supply, and prices are far below the cost of production. Many commodities besides oil are affected; these include natural gas, coal, iron ore, many metals, and many types of food. Our concern should be that low prices will bring down production, quite possibly for many commodities simultaneously. Perhaps the problem should be called "Limits to Growth," rather than "Peak Oil," because it is a different type of problem than most people expected.
2. The only theoretical solution would be to create a huge supply of renewable energy that would work in today's devices. It would need to be cheap to produce and be available in the immediate future. Electricity would need to be produced for no more than four cents per kWh, and liquid fuels would need to be produced for less than $20 per barrel of oil equivalent. The low cost would need to be the result of very sparing use of resources, rather than the result of government subsidies." (4)
As I interpret relevant portions of her argument, all of the cheap, easy to produce hydrocarbon fuels have already been gotten. What remains is expensive to produce, both in monetary term, as well as in energy terms. (5, 6) For the global economy to continue to grow, anticipatable future created wealth (return on investment "ROI") must be sufficient to pay off debt incurred to produce that wealth, with surplus left over for actual growth. Unfortunately, this condition is not, and cannot ever again be, satisfied by fossil fuels. To put the significance of this observation into plain English: The transition from fossil fuels, to renewables cannot be done profitably. More precisely, to be "profitable" as Gail explains in her article (linked from source #4 below) renewable energy would have to cost below four cents per kilowatt hour.
This is not to say that government could not command the resources needed according to a master plan for energy transition. It is not to say that certain renewable technologies considered individually might not be profitable. It is to say, that laisse faire capitalism, neoliberalism in today's vernacular, cannot facilitate the needed transition. Meantime, the weather worsens, our environment degrades, available farmland decreases (7) as any remaining time to act effectively dwindles rapidly towards zero.
Given all of this, I can only say that the Bronze Age mentality which has led us to this precipice must be rapidly relegated to history's dustbin. Change YOUR thinking NOW. Human civilization is an emergent property of humanity. If WE change, IT changes. Bronze Age social, religious, political and economic structures need to go NOW. Change yourself. Encourage change in others. Decentralize energy production. Agriculture also. Agriculture must be brought into balance with the environment in which is occurs. Permaculture techniques need to be studied and rapidly implemented.
To physically facilitate this change, I have long advocated placing microwave reflectors into geosynchronous orbit. A single launch of, for example, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket would be sufficient to place once such reflector into orbit. These are simple wire mesh artifacts. Mirrors for microwaves. Note carefully, these mirrors are NOT satellite solar power stations. All of the technological complexity remains on the ground. I've written about this concept in my books, as well as elsewhere. (8), (9). The idea is to fully take advantage of Earth's natural, renewable solar, hydro, wind, tidal, and geothermal energy sources. Any surplus energy anywhere would be fed into a planetary energy grid. This grid would be integrated using the microwave mirrors in the sky. Wind and tidal energy unneeded during nighttime on one part of the planet could be made available to daytime portions of the Earth where they are needed.
All of the planet would depend upon all of the rest of the planet for energy. This is an updated version of ideas first promoted by Buckminster Fuller. With a planetary energy web, sharing would become an essential part of our transformed economy. Here, we would be leaving the Bronze Age forever to return, in a sense, to the early Neolithic, the "late Stone Age" which featured sharing and caring economics and gender equality--gathering is as important as is hunting for overall long term survival after all!
The hour is very late. Many would say too late. I hopefully disagree. However, if we do not act very, very quickly, it will indeed be too late. The long journey upon which our distant ancestors set out upon thousands of generations ago is nearing its final resolution. Please don't be passive at this once upon our species lifetime moment! Act!